Try as he might, Don Westmoreland has never been able to walk away from music for long
It was 1943, while singing an a cappella version of Bing Crosby’s “Home On The Range” at his Texas City elementary school, when 8-year-old Don Westmoreland got his first taste of show business.
He was terrified and vowed it would be the last time he would ever perform. Seventy-two years later, the singer, songwriter, producer and owner of Limelight Recording Studio might finally be ready to accept that a life in music is his destiny.
“I keep trying to retire, but people just keep calling,” Westmoreland, 80, said.
As a living link to so many names and chapters in Texas music history, Westmoreland is still in demand. His work as a songwriter, producer and engineer connects him with everyone from 1950s country music legends Little Jimmy Dickens and Carl Smith to Willie Nelson, Herb Remington, Bob Wills, Bo Diddley, Doug Supernaw and many more.
Locals such as Galveston-born Hamilton Loomis, Neil Austin Imber and Bert Wills all have recorded at Limelight. Westmoreland once engineered a voice-over with Hollywood actor Gene Hackman, and was host to several country music radio shows over the years, including one in the early 1960s on KIKK broadcasting out of Pasadena.
Westmoreland’s life as a child was rocked literally and figuratively by the 1947 tragic explosion in Texas City’s port that killed nearly 600 people. A ship carrying 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire in the harbor on the morning of April 16 while Westmoreland was walking to school. He watched as his father, a volunteer fireman, passed him on the road aboard a fire truck. That would be the last time Westmoreland saw his father, Marion “Jack” Westmoreland.
An hour later, while he was in class, the school shook from the enormous blast that blew out windows and flattened nearby homes.
Twenty-seven of the 28 members of Texas City’s volunteer fire department were killed in the explosion, Westmoreland’s father among them.
Two years later, in 1949, after working through the summer as a cleanup boy in an electrical shop, and despite his vow to avoid performing ever again, Westmoreland bought himself a guitar, a bicycle and a pair of cowboy boots and was ready to take on the world.
“I had everything I thought I would ever need in life,” he said.
Westmoreland’s mother, Mattie Lou, didn’t full-heartedly agree with her son’s choice to pursue music. But by the early 1950s, Westmoreland had established himself as a reliable guitar player and singer of country music. Though not yet of legal drinking age, and still a student at Texas City High School, Westmoreland was playing in bars and nightclubs from Galveston to Houston six nights a week.
On a chance meeting with some music industry heavies in 1953, Westmoreland was given an opportunity to have one of his songs, “The Bottom Fell Out,” recorded by Little Jimmy Dickens and/or Carl Smith, both then Nashville stars. Westmoreland was instructed to record a demo of the song and send copies to Dickens and Smith. But not long after recording the song in Houston, Westmoreland drove one of his older bandmates home to Galveston after a gig. After seeing his bandmate’s meager living conditions for the first time, Westmoreland decided that night he wanted nothing more to do with music. Within a week, he became engaged to a “nice girl” from his high school and graduated shortly thereafter. Westmoreland never sent the demo recording of his song to Nashville and concedes to some regret about it. It would be seven years and four children later before he opened his guitar case again.
In 1960, after quitting his job at Union Carbide in Texas City, Westmoreland began performing again, but his interest in music production took precedence and he began recording local musicians in the Dickinson house he still calls home. He met his current wife, Alice Kalinowski, in 1962 during a recording session and the two began singing together. Their professional musical partnership, known simply as “Don and Alice” led to a single released later that year on Westmoreland’s newly formed label, Triumph Records. Artists released on Triumph included notable country singers Johnny Lee and Leon Rausch. But by 1966, the label was defunct.
Westmoreland continued recording in his house until 1982, when he built the facility known today as Limelight Recording Studio, a 2,100-square-foot building next door to his home. Westmoreland said he can’t count the number of recording sessions and albums he produced or engineered, but after so many years in business, it might be time to begin winding it down, he said. At least until the next phone call comes in.